by Annette Bignami

.  Since Cape Ann is the nearest coast to Boston, the traffic stalls on summer weekends. So we visit midweek or early weekend mornings in summer or opt for fall foliage visits.  In winter when snow salts the shore the stark black, gray and black landscape offers somber delights even though some of the more touristy shops close.

Man at the wheel

Photo: Annette Bignami

We park when we can and explore on foot.  If you have the time to explore Marblehead or any other North Shore or Cape Ann village with narrow, often one-way streets, park and walk.  The best shopping sections on Cape Anne and the North Shore suit pedestrians.  We drive up over the Mystic-Tobin Bridge from Charleston or the tunnels from Boston to East Boston and then take 1A into Lynn. Consider an early morning side trip out Nahant Road past Lynn and Nahant Beaches to Lewis Beach offers a great view of the Boston skyline on a clear day.

Marblehead sports boat builders and other businesses run salt chuck and it suits boaters who rent skiffs or prams locally to fish or simply to watch the lovely shore scenery on the bay. Aside from that it gets infested with tourists on weekends and parking is a challenge second only to the Boston Marathon.  So head out of downtown to rhe best shore view of Marblehead's many close, inshore islands and other scenery is from Old Burial Hill.  Birders find even more to photograph at Marblehead Neck Sanctuary on Bonard Road.  Several small beaches east of town suit picnics, but you may have to drop part of your party off and head well away from the water to park. 

If you'd rather drive and rubberneck, circumnavigate the peninsula via Beacon Street and West Shore Drive towards Salem. Your wooded frontage route passes some of America's most scenic homes, many of which you can't see from the road but are the delight of those who cruise by on local tour boats. We often bike here. Bikes can be rented if you don't have yours, or you can hike the historic, and happily level, trail past downtown's 20 most historical points.   Check Old Town hall on weekdays.  Don't have a guidebook?  Swing by Chamber of Commerce on Gloucester and Rockport streets for information.  More sedentary folks can tour town on motorized cable cars too.

The Paper House

Photo: Annette Bignami

Essex Street, a pedestrian mall fronting the Peabody Museum, is a good place to start exploring Salem if you walk.  The museum's four buildings overflow with a surprisingly good collection of Pacific Island, East Asian and other folk art brought back by the area's sea captains who sailed trading barks, clippers and whalers to the ends of the earth.  New England Maritime History exhibits offer a worthwhile  diversion, too.  We prefer the architecture of the 1824 East Indian Marine Hall to the new Erned S. Dodge Building.

The House of Seven Gables, about which Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the book of the same title, and other diversions along the bay, such as the Custom House deserve a look. The Witch Museum seems less impressive.  We skip Pioneer Village in PalĀ­mer's Cove, which is a reproduction of 1630 Salem.  Old  Sturbridge in mid-Massachusetts or Plymouth Colony toward Plymouth Rock seem more interesting.

When we tour early - a must on summer weekends to avoid traffic - we eat light to enjoy the local steamed clams or lobster salad for lunch.  On cold days we eat inside; on nice days we watch Salem Harbor from a restaurant's deck.  A dandy harbor tour and a lunch cruise to Gloucester leave from a nearby dock - that lets you see what's behind the gates on the shore drive.

For greater savings, we buy fresh or steamed clams, lobster and other seafood fresh from lobster or crab shacks and plan al fresco seafood picnics on public beaches.  Or eat lunch in a good restaurant and enjoy the on their dinner menu, sans a vegetable or salad, at a three to five dollar savings.  Then we eat lighter and/or less expensive dinners. We save money and reduce the overstuffed feeling from big dinners just before bedtime.

You can also catch dinner.  Bring your heavy surf tackle if you fish off beaches. Lighter gear suits wharf fishing and variety of freshwater fishing action available on the cape. Head boats leave local harbors, and guide services are available. Check local fishing tackle shops.  I recommend clam shovels and other tools, as well as your cold-weather clothing if you visit during clam season.

With a fill of clam chowder or fresh fish you might explore the more than 40 shops on Pickering Wharf to work off lunch.  A short side trip to scenic Hospital Point Lighthouse is a must.

Manchester's a good spot for a beach break. Singing Beach --we were disappointed to find it really sort of squeaks -- at the end of Beach Street seems a bit more scenic than most beaches in the area.  Parking spots are usually hard to come by, so weekend visitors should take the B&M train over from the public parking lot. Photo buffs should turn off beach Street to shoot the harbor from Masconomo Park.  Try the fresh lobster at one of the many restaurants.

In summer you pay your dues with a 10-minute to hour-long wait at Blynman Drawbridge - locals call this "Cut Bridge," for Cape Ann is an island separated from the mainland by an 18th-century canal and the Amnisquam River.

If you get stuck in traffic at the bridge, relax, and check the open-air stands along the seawall.  You might try "fried dough," a local delicacy that tastes a lot better than it sounds.  Also worthwhile are summer fruit stands for sweet corn and other fresh produce.  

Still stuck in traffic -   Check the statue "Man at the Wheel" on the boardwalk, a photographer's favorite that honors the more than 10,000 Gloucester fishermen who lost their lives at sea. There's an information booth by the statue if you need more information.

We like Gloucester because it reminds us of Monterey when my home town was a working fishing town before the "totally tourist" days.  Gloucester prices seem lower than in more scenic smaller towns farther along the Cape too!

The best local beach is Wingaersheek, off Atlantic Street, which has the nicest soft, white sand on the cape; kids prefer Half Moon and Cressy's Beaches with snack bars, play areas, and teenage action.  Watch for beach-sticker requirements and local parking preferences.  Tickets and tows greet those who do not!

If not museumed out try the Beauport Museum, which offer 40 rather unusual rooms of antiques. The Paper House in Pigeon Cove is an absolute must for all visitors who enjoy oddities; it's made from pasted newspapers, its walls reportedly contain 215 sheets of paper and the furniture is paper too.  It took 20 years to build this delight.

Rockport's the next town out on Cape Ann.  As soon as you can, pay to park in the lot on Main Street, and tour on foot.  Dock Square has all sorts of spots to shop for art. The lobster shack across the harbor is known as "Motif Number One" and may be the most often photographed, and is doubtless the most often painted, feature on the Cape.

You'll also find superb art galleries in the tradition of Winslow Homer and John Sloan at Bearskin Neck. Necks seem big in Cape Ann art circles.  Rocky Neck Arts Colony in Gloucester is one of the oldest in America and still produces worthwhile arts and crafts. 

Given the choice, we like spring and early fall visits best. The former are green and least crowded; the later let us add foliage tours to New Hampshire or Vermont. But whatever time you visit Cape Ann you find a host of special attractions. It's the best side trip out of Boston.

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